Monday, January 17, 2011

the justice of community

Jesus the Son told His disciples, “The poor you will have with always.” God the Father told Israel, “There will be no poor among you.”

So what’s up with that?

Those two verses caused a bit of turmoil in the camp that I spent some time with: the word-of-faith world. Don’t get me wrong: there were some things I learned there as I sojourned through. But there were also some conundrums.

Part of the problem was how individualistic the theology was presented. A while back, something struck me that was so obvious in the Old Testament…but I had somehow missed it. It’s about that verse in Deuteronomy quoted above. But the revelation sneaked in the through the back door…via the New Testament.

It began with Acts 4 with a passage I had probably read a hundred times:

The group of those who believed were of one heart and mind and no one said that any of his possessions was his own, but everything was held in common.

Let me be honest: that unnerves me. Doesn’t it you? But simply from a common-sense approach, think how inefficient we are as communities of people…even apart from “church”. My neighbor and I were talking one day about how crazy that every family on our street has their our own lawnmower and yet how often did we all cut our grass at the same time. How much cheaper and more efficient it would be if there was one lawnmower we all used?

Luke continues:

With great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was on them all.

In other words, the Holy Spirit was moving in power as they talked about Jesus and—as a result of His resurrection—His being Lord. Then he writes:

For there was no one needy among them, because those who were owners of land or houses were selling them and bringing the proceeds from the sales and placing them at the apostles’ feet. The proceeds were distributed to each, as anyone had need.

Those who had some measure of wealth were selling off real estate and giving the money to the leaders to take care of needy people in their community. These were people who had been radically touched by God. They were all in. They saw themselves as a family, but remember: there were thousands of them. This wasn’t a little commune in the country; there was something profound happening in their midst. And so this letting go of “stuff” was compelling and evident.

But there’s more to the story that can be easily missed…and Luke drops a big clue. He uses the phrase: There was no one needy among them. That’s a phrase taken right out of Deuteronomy 15 in the Old Testament: There should be no needy among you (Deut 15:4).

As I mentioned, I had heard that used in word-of-faith circles—what’s called prosperity teaching—many times. That if we have enough faith—if we confess prosperity enough—we can be wealthy…because God told Israel that if they would obey Him they would be prosperous, and if they didn’t, they would have poverty. We would be blessed in the city and blessed in the country.

But here’s what’s interesting: in Deuteronomy 15, that verse is tied to a social justice system that required all Israelites to forgive any debts owed to them every seven years. All debts were wiped out every seven years, creating a new level playing field despite whatever bad investments you had made, bad decisions, or just bad luck. Plus, they were to loan money to each other freely with no interest…even in the sixth year when they knew they wouldn’t get paid back.

And then when they did that, then God says, there should be no needy among you. Isn’t it interesting how community-oriented that was…and how less individualistic in terms of the way we typically teach about prosperity?

It takes a community to raise a disciple. Let’s not kid our little individualistic selves. And as they say on TV, But wait! There’s more…

After every seven times seven years—in the fiftieth year—Israel had a Jubilee year. Not only were all debts forgiven, but any land that had been bought fair-and-square had to be given back to its original owner…and all people who were indentured slaves because of debt were set free from their “owners”. Jubilee was a massive social security system that may not even seem fair to us but it was vital for this community in relationship with God because it reminded them that everything actually belonged to God and He was loaning it to them. It kept them from taking an individualistic approach to their relationship with God and reminded them they—Israel—were a covenant community.

Still tracking with me? Think about this…

When Jesus gives His famous mission-statement in Luke 4 and announces who He really is—Messiah—He quotes from Isaiah 61 that He’s here to bring good news to the poor, freedom for the captives, and proclaim the year of God’s favor. That’s a reference to the year of Jubilee. Everything returns to its rightful owner, including human beings, made in the image of God, and they belong to Him. He’s getting them back for Himself and they would no longer be slaves of the enemy. They’re His property. This is the New Covenant…and they would be the New Covenant Community.

So when Luke writes, There were no needy among them, he’s giving us a clue that these early believers saw themselves as the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, that they were this New Community, and because they were in this together, there will be no needy among them…because they all recognized that everything belonged to God. It was radical.

This wasn’t some socialism. This wasn’t a social service agency to take care of the poor, this was a community in covenant with one another because they were in covenant with God. It’s easy to see how far we’ve drifted, but not so easy to row back to the shore.

One more thing: it made me deeply thankful that God launched The Healing Center when and how He did. It got me thinking about the power of the local church…and the critical purpose of community.

And it all began with the first one in Jerusalem.


  1. Dave,

    Awesome post. The draw of Acts is so strong, to know that we could live as community. I love the story of the neighbors. It doesn't really make sense for all of us to own lawnmowers, does it :-)

    I wasn't aware the Jubilee returned property to the original owners. Was that just in the Jewish community? I was thinking about Genesis 23:3-20 and Abraham purchasing the cave. (I just heard it on Daily Audio Bible).

  2. Great insights as usual, Dave, regarding the poor!

    Not so much on the lawnmowers, though ...IF lawnmowers had eternal lives, then maybe ...

  3. We also fail to understand these passages in light of tithing.

    In the OT, the purpose of the tithe was to finance the work of the priesthood (see the latter half of Numbers 18).

    In the NT, each believer filled with the Spirit in the Church Universal is the priesthood. When the Holy Spirit fell at Pentecost, right afterward the Church instituted ensuring no one of its own lacked anything needful.

    We don't make that connection. There is no NT tithe (because the OT temple system has been abolished), but there is the ensuring that the needs of fellow believers are met. Whether that takes 1% of one's income to meet or 50%, that's the standard.

    Yet somehow, many churches are still stuck on the 10% thing, even as people within those churches walls struggle to pay medical, utility, and housing bills. Getting them to think NT rather than OT fails in large part because of failings in understanding genuine Christian community and also falling back into the OT temple way of of thinking.

    I can only hope in my lifetime that modern Christians begin to see how this is supposed to work and then start working to see it become commonplace.

  4. So I guess I can come live at your place rent free according to this blog

    Send me some money while your at it

  5. Hi Don,
    Yes, that was established under Moses for Israel.

    Not sure what your point is, but I was just making the connection between God's plan for poverty in Israel and the Church in Acts. I didn't come up with the idea...I'm not that smart.

  6. This is a great post and is exactly what I would like to see the church community get back too. But it also has been like pulling teeth to see this happen. It's funny how you can nod in agreement on Sunday but on Monday you are thinking that pastor has lost his mind...